The Withdrawal from Afghanistan Does Not Mean that the War is Over for the United States
The failures of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the feeling of U.S. decline, set against the reemergence of China, has prompted a crisis of confidence among Americans—a crisis characterized by a lack of belief in the exceptionalism of their country and its political establishment perceived as incompetent. Former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice recalled in 2008 that the two priorities of post-9/11 U.S. policy were “winning the war on terror” and “promoting freedom as an alternative to tyranny.” The return to power by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the resurgence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria represent two considerable failures for the United States and its allies: the terrorist threat has adapted and strengthened since 2001, and the promotion of democracy has been permanently tainted so that it no longer enjoys the support of U.S. citizens and a sizeable portion of the political class, which is above all concerned with salvaging the state of its domestic democracy. Washington now views any military engagement as a risk of endless civil wars and is refocusing its foreign policy on competition with China. This does not mean that the “war on terror” is over. In fact, the experience of the last two decades requires us to reflect on the modalities of military interventions and to clarify their strategic objectives.
This does not mean that the 'war on terror' is over. In fact, the experience of the last two decades requires us to reflect on the modalities of military interventions and to clarify their strategic objectives.
The spirit of national unity that prevailed in the United States just after September 11, 2001, quickly gave way to divisions within society and the political class. The working class in particular, which has borne the heaviest human burden of the “war on terror,” blames the subsequent administrations for their excessive interventionist policy, disconnected with the country’s “vital interests” (primarily protecting U.S. jobs) and the well-being of its citizens. It is not surprising, therefore, that America First resonated so profoundly with voters during the 2016 presidential campaign. It is also not surprising that President Joe Biden designs his foreign policy “for middle-class Americans” and that his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama called for “nation-building at home.” The military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of combat missions in Iraq by December are supported by a majority of Americans, who are primarily concerned about jobs and socioeconomic inequality that has become even more acute since the coronavirus crisis.
The political and strategic setbacks of these 20 years of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations are colossal, although the Biden administration is now in denial. As early as January 2005, U.S. intelligence agencies believed that Iraq had become a “magnet” for a new generation of jihadist terrorists and already anticipated the emergence of the Islamic State. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have not severed their ties with al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network, two representatives of which are now part of the Taliban interim government. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin estimates that al-Qaeda can reconstitute itself in Afghanistan within two years—a time frame that seems quite optimistic.
U.S. interference in the post-Taliban and post-Saddam Hussein political transitions has led to results contrary to those desired by the United States: the Taliban have regained power in Afghanistan and Iraqi power is in the grip of pro-Iranian Shiite militias. In July 2010, Joe Biden, then vice president, said that the United States was not in Afghanistan to “transform the country into a Jeffersonian democracy.” The rhetoric around democracy, “free and fair” elections, and women’s rights served above all to justify the military presence and to instigate the support of Western public opinion for a mission that was ill-defined from its onset. The intervention in Iraq signed the death sentence of “democracy promotion” and, along with the failure in Afghanistan, profoundly changed the relationship of post-George W. Bush administrations to military force, which is now used more selectively and cautiously with a downward review of strategic objectives and means deployed. Obama’s “leading from behind” in Libya stems from the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the non-intervention in Syria stems from the lessons learned from Libya.
This is not the first time that the U.S. sheriff has reviewed his strategic priorities after a period of interventionism: from President G.W. Bush to President Biden, it was always agreed that the United States should no longer be the “world’s policeman” in order to focus on competition with China. But each president has in fact extended the “war on terror” (through the use of armed drones in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria; the presence of special forces in more than 75 countries; and cyber offensive operations), entrenching the United States in its role as the world’s policeman, in spite of the desire of the various administrations to shake the label off.
A similar thought process is taking place in France, which is adapting its armed forces to new forms of conflict in a context of increased competition and a plethora of theatres of operation.
In France, the objective set by President Francois Hollande after the November 2015 terrorist attacks was not to “contain” but to “destroy” the Islamic State. In effect, the “war on terror” places us in a logic of endless containment of the terrorist threat, and thus of a perpetual war. The withdrawal from Afghanistan does not mean that the war is over: it is accompanied by a revision of U.S. counter-terrorism policy, with a refocusing on war at a distance. The U.S. strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia in July and in Afghanistan at the end of August against Islamic State confirm this trend. A similar thought process is taking place in France, which is adapting its armed forces to new forms of conflict in a context of increased competition and a plethora of theatres of operation. However, this conversion is far from complete, and will require means pooled with its European partners.
This article was first published, in French, in L’Opinion on September 10, 2021.